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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE RECEPTIONIST
at City Center Stage

THE BANALITY OF EVIL
By Bill Stevenson

  Jayne Houdyshell

For about 80 percent of its 80-minute running time, Adam Bock's The Receptionist appears to be a gently comic portrait of mundane office life. The phone keeps ringing, but that doesn't stop the employees from engaging in more chitchat than actual work. Eventually, however, the story takes a surprisingly dark turn, and the gentle comedy morphs into a cautionary tale of how evil can exist in the most banal, bland surroundings.

Even before the plot twist, The Receptionist is watchable thanks to the actress in the title role: Jayne Houdyshell, best known for her remarkable Tony-nominated performance in Well. Here she plays Beverly Wilkins, an unexceptional middle-aged Midwesterner who answers the phones at a branch office of an unnamed firm. Beverly doesn't know or care what the company does. Since her boss, Mr. Raymond, ( Robert Foxworth) is running late, she has plenty of time to gossip with a friend on the phone. Between calls, Beverly listens to a pretty young coworker, Lorraine (Kendra Kasselbaum), share tidbits about her dating misadventures. When the handsome, genial Mr. Dart (Josh Charles ) pays a visit, Lorraine is smitten and flirts shamelessly. Despite being married, Dart flirts right back. It all seems like a typical day at the office until the real purpose of Dart's visit becomes clear.

Bock (The Thugs, Swimming in the Shallows) smartly establishes the office environment and the characters before taking the play in a sinister direction. The twist comes abruptly and may be hard for some to swallow. Fortunately, director Joe Mantello and his fine cast go a long way toward making it believable.

Houdyshell, employing a slight Minnesota twang, is utterly convincing and often quite funny as Beverly. The actress get laughs from small moments, as when Beverly tells Lorraine she's working (when she's not) and when she assumes a more professional phone manner after she learns Mr. Dart is from the central office. Kassebaum is also winning as Lorraine, who tears up at the drop of a hat but is apparently tougher and smarter than she seems. Charles makes Mr. Dart a charmer, and Foxworth's Mr. Raymond is an archetypal company man. Mantello makes the relationships between the characters crystal clear and handles the tonal shifts with subtlety. David Korins' aptly sterile set shifts just as quickly and smoothly.

In less capable hands The Receptionist could be dull or even laughable, but the four actors never strike a false note. And if the off-stage brutality sounds far-fetched, it's worth remembering that our government has been accused recently of similar merciless acts.

 


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